Anime and cartoons are the two dominant forms of animation in popular culture today, each attracting its own massive sphere of fans. Some people, typically in the West, contend that anime constitutes a form of cartoon, while others argue that they refer to two separate categories of animation.
How is a cartoon different from an anime?
The main differences between a cartoon and an anime are evident in their visuals, animation style, character design, and standard level of maturity.
Cartoons use simpler visuals and character designs, especially concerning facial features; have more emphasis on movement, and are traditionally suited to children.
Meanwhile, anime shows include more detailed characters and scenery; and present a three-dimensional view of the world. The majority of shows have fans among teenagers and older audiences.
What is a Cartoon?
Cartoons, in the simplest sense, are two-dimensional illustrations. Their characters are typically drawn with unrealistic or pseudo-realistic features.
In comparing cartoons to anime, people refer to animated cartoons, where a sequence of images with slight changes in each image simulates movement. Animated cartoons are also known as Western animation.
Traditional cartoon animations are hand-drawn, although it is increasingly common to make cartoons using computer-generated graphics.
Most cartoons are made for humor. Educational or kid-centric cartoons make up a sizable portion of the industry, while adult-themed cartoons also see current popularity thanks to on-demand streaming services, such as Netflix.
What is an Anime?
In Japan, anime refers to any and all animated works. Elsewhere, the term strictly refers to Japanese-produced animations. A looser, but more controversial definition includes Western works styled after anime, such as The Last Airbender.
Japanese anime has many distinctive features. Characters are designed with large eyes and expressive faces, with closer attention to their costumes, hair style, and body proportions.
Anime studios typically have higher production values, which is reflected in the dramatic camera movements, lighting, and coloring of shows like Demon Slayer, Jujutsu Kaisen, or Made in Abyss.
As a whole, anime can access a wider range of themes, plotlines and character arcs. For instance, shonen and seinen works, which are respectively targeted towards adolescents and young adults, commonly include stories and settings that address real-life issues, such as depression, parental abandonment, and societal malaise.
Differences between a Cartoon and an Anime
In creating cartoon characters, artists follow principles such as strong silhouettes, pleasing color palettes, and exaggerated facial features. Cartoons are incredibly varied, from the semi-realistic designs in Ben 10, Generator Rex or several superhero animated films, to simpler ones in Adventure Time.
Overall, anime designs are more uniform. Features such as the eyes and hair have the greatest amount of detail, while the nose and mouth are less emphasized. Anime characters have realistically proportionate bodies, and visual attractiveness is important in this art style. Deformed art styles, such as chibi, which are meant to be cute, are also popular.
Scenery and Background
Anime studios place greater value on the environmental designs of their shows to better immerse the viewers in the world and create aesthetically-pleasing shots. Multiple angles and CGI are also used to provide three-dimensional camera work.
Many popular cartoons have simpler, two-dimensional scenery, although good studios can also infuse backgrounds with immersive details. Examples of these settings include Spongebob Squarepants and Samurai Jack.
Most cartoon series on television, including Spongebob Squarepants, Fairly Odd Parents, and The Amazing World of Gumball, have a standard runtime of 11 minutes per animated short. Two episodes fill in one thirty-minute TV slot.
Why must every eleven minutes of my life be filled with misery?
- Squidward, Spongebob Squarepants
Longer runtimes between 30-60 minutes are reserved for special episodes, especially season finales.
For anime, a single episode lasting 23-25 minutes occupies the same 30-minute slot without commercials.
It is more likely for characters in anime to have different costumes than those in cartoons. The former may even change their clothing multiple times per episode. Clothing is seen as an effective storytelling device to show aspects of a character’s personality.
In contrast, cartoon characters may be seen wearing the same type of clothes for the majority of a season. Animators can resort to this due to cost and time constraints, and frequently lampshade this by showing a character’s wardrobe containing several identical sets of outfits.
Again, as a whole, anime steers closer towards more mature themes, even in shonen shows intended for young teens. It is less hesitant to depict topics such as death, hardship, and human flaws as challenges for the protagonists to face.
Cartoons are more likely to be light-hearted and comedic. Fantastical scenarios and humor are used to provide escapist adventures from reality.
Serious themes are rarely approached at all, unless a show is fundamentally dark. Examples of such productions are Castlevania, Clone Wars and Young Justice.
Japanese anime is clearly diversified into different categories.
Shonen, for example, caters to younger audiences, like teenagers, and involves lighter, more action-packed sequences with an emphasis on teaching good life values. In contrast, seinen tackles more mature settings for older teenagers and young adults.
We explain the differences between shonen and seinen anime in another article.
Music is far more prominent as a storytelling medium in anime. Characters can have a signature theme, or even a fully produced “image song” that helps depict their personality. It’s common for Japanese pop, rock or rap artists to produce songs for an anime.
Cartoons may also have signature themes for characters and leitmotifs that play at certain events.
Openings and Endings
Most cartoons have a fairly brief opening sequence, lasting 5 to 30 seconds. The lead characters may be the ones singing their own theme song. The ending credits are similarly simple, and can consist of little more than a static background and moving credits while an instrumental form of the theme song plays.
This contrasts with anime, where openings and endings are a spectacle on their own, frequently being used to showcase the animation and production quality of the show. A standard OP lasts 90 seconds.
As a facet of the industry, openings and endings are set to “hit” songs produced by popular Japanese musicians. These songs are also respectively called OPs and EDs, and regularly list on Japanese music charts.
Anime tackles far more themes, with romance, drama, mystery and comedy all being standard fare for plenty of shows.
A single show may even carry several of these themes. It is common to see shows depict aspects of society, such as employment, education, family, and interpersonal relationships.
Cartoons may also have these themes, but there is a greater focus on humor overall. Many cartoons, especially those aimed at children or young teens, can set story arcs that deal with coming-of-age and growing maturity.
Each cartoon short is largely self-contained, with any changes happening in one episode almost always reverting to the norm at the end.
Anime seasons, in contrast, often tell one continuous story that unfolds with each episode. This allows the show to depict deeper and more nuanced interactions between characters, and lead to greater character development.
In the late 1600s, the Italian word cartone pertained to a type of strong paper or pasteboard that artists would use for their rough sketches. Around the same time, English speakers adopted this into the word cartoon to refer to the same kind of paper.
Over the centuries, a cartoon would also refer to caricatures, exaggerated drawings that made fun of politicians or other notable people. The 20th-century cartoonist Winsor McCay is responsible for popularizing the first animated shorts that would also become known as cartoons.
Meanwhile, anime arose as the colloquial Japanese term for all types of animation.
Comparison Chart: Cartoon vs Anime
|Simple, expressive, varying levels of realism
|Greater emphasis on eyes and hair, less on nose; more realistic
|Scenery and Background
|Detailed and immersive
|Two 11-minute shorts
|One 25-minute episode
|Light-hearted and family-friendly
|Can be more mature
|Adolescents and young adults
|Openings and Endings
|Short and utilitarian
|Features hit songs
|Humor, education, adventure, action
|Wider range; romance, drama, mystery, action
|Episodes have self-contained stories
|Episodes tell a continuing story
|17th-century Italian cartone, meaning a strong type of pasteboard
|Japanese term for Modern English “animation”
How are cartoons and anime similar?
Despite their differences, cartoons and anime still fall under the umbrella category for animation. As such, there are many parallels in how studios can make both shows.
The production process for making an episode of either a cartoon or anime involves the following stages:
- Character, art, and color design
- Key animation and inbetweening
- Special effects
- Voice acting
- Music and SFX editing
- Dubbing (for translations)
Other similarities between anime and cartoons include being two-dimensional visual art forms that traditionally rely on moving several images in quick succession to create simulated movement.
What was the first anime?
Japanese animation began as early as 1907, with the three-second short Katsudō Shashin (Activity Photo) technically being considered as the first anime.
The Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 destroyed many records of other early anime, and Namakura Gatana (The Dull Sword) currently has the title as the oldest existing Japanese short film.
The exaggerated designs, animation styles, and visual tropes that would greatly influence modern anime would be first developed by shows like Otogi Manga Calendar, Astro Boy and Sennin Buraku.
Who invented animated cartoons?
The French cartoonist Émile Cohl enjoys the epithet, “father of the animated cartoon,” by creating the first full cartoon animation film, Fantasmagorie (Phantasmagoria), in 1908. The 105-second film featured a stick man encountering various transforming creatures and objects.
Cohl produced over 700 drawings to create the film, tracing and slightly changing each image using an illuminated glass plate so they could create the illusion of movement when animated. Using negative prints of black lines on paper, Cohl’s work would appear like a moving chalkboard drawing.
Other early pioneers of animated cartoons include Georges Méliès, Winsor McCay, J. Stuart Blackton, and Eadweard Muybridge.
Cartoons and anime are the two most prolific and popular forms of animation today.
The key differences between anime and cartoons can be identified through their characters’ facial features and clothing, maturity and common themes, episode length and story progression.
Cartoons use simple but memorable character designs and unrealistic or exaggerated body forms. Their characters might rarely change their outfits, if ever. Most cartoon shows are kid-friendly, tackling genres like adventure or comedy, and are overall more light-hearted. Episodes typically last 11 minutes, and tell self-contained stories.
Meanwhile, anime features more detailed character models. Outfits typically change to reflect a character’s role or personality. Shows can explore a variety of themes, from romance and comedy, to mystery and horror, and approach real-world issues with more maturity. More value is placed on music. Episodes can last around 25 minutes, telling a single, continuing story.